For Boehner, It Was About the Institution

And in the end, that’s why he became the latest House speaker who didn’t leave on his own terms.

House Speaker John Boehner at a news conference in the Capitol on Friday. (MOLLY RILEY/AFP/Getty Images)

Someday, John Boehner’s emotional approach to his job and obvious love of the institution may be recalled in the same way as Speaker Sam Rayburn preventing his fellow Democrats from blocking Republican President Dwight Eisenhower’s foreign policy initiatives. Or Speaker Tip O’Neill’s after-hours friendship with Ronald Reagan.

After Boehner was forced into premature retirement by the hotheads in his caucus, it is clear that his approach to the speakership belongs in the history books alongside Rayburn’s belief that foreign adversaries needed to see a bipartisan foreign policy and O’Neill’s belief that Democrats can be friends with Republicans. In today’s overheated, hyperpartisan Washington, there seems little room for institutionalists who cherish the House and see a picture bigger than the battle of the day.

Nothing better captured that atmosphere than the graceless and jarring statement issued Friday by Heritage Action for America. Michael A. Needham, the group's chief executive officer, could not bring himself to offer even a nod to Boehner’s lifetime of service to conservatism and the Republican Party. Instead, his message was basically “good riddance.” “Too often,” he said, “Speaker Boehner has stood in the way” of giving Americans a decent Congress.

And this was from a supposed ally of conservatives.

With so many well-financed groups such as Heritage demanding ideological purity, it’s no wonder Boehner waved the white flag in the wake of the personally enriching feat of hosting Pope Francis on Thursday. And, with Boehner’s scalp on their belt, these groups will be emboldened to try to make the next speaker dance to their tune.

That’s one reason White House officials expect to accomplish little with this Congress in the coming months. Their expectations were not high with Boehner calling the shots and they see little reason to raise those hopes if the tea-party members of the GOP caucus have more influence over the tactics and strategies to be followed over the coming year.

For the House, Boehner’s abrupt departure continues a now-familiar narrative for speakers. Not since Rayburn has there been an all-powerful speaker who could keep his caucus in line for long. Rayburn, a Texas Democrat, served three stints in the job, last vacating it in 1961. Since then, there have been nine speakers. Four—Carl Albert, Jim Wright, Dennis Hastert, and Newt Gingrich—were weakened by scandals or big election defeats and pushed out of the post or into retirement. One—Thomas Foley—was defeated by the voters. And now Boehner joins the two—John McCormack and Tip O’Neill – who were shoved to early exits by restive younger members of their caucuses. Only one of the nine—Nancy Pelosi—survived the loss of the speakership and made the transition to minority leader.

A speaker leaving the House on his or her own terms and own timetable may be the rarest thing in American political history. No one since Rayburn has been able to pull it off.

Boehner’s departure does give Republicans the opportunity, though, to complete a remarkable generational change in leadership—a needed process that the minority Democrats have yet to begin. If Kevin McCarthy, at age 50, replaces the 65-year-old Boehner, he would be the first speaker not old enough to remember the days when bipartisan compromise was the norm in Congress. He would be the first speaker born after the 1940s, and the first not in any way shaped by the Vietnam War. In fact, born in 1965, he likely doesn't even remember Vietnam and the culture wars of the 1960s.

The question will be if he is old enough to remember when Congress was expected to be a partner in governance.